UPDATED: What If... Teachers Demanded to Be Treated Like Artists

Note: Back by popular demand, Edjacent author Jared Fritzinger from https://edinthewild.com/ shares a response with his views on teaching as an artist below this post. Jared, as a musician, has a unique perspective on the mutual exclusivity of the two. 

“It ain’t what they call you; it’s what you answer to.” W.C. Fields

Like many people, I've been thinking about the purpose of schooling and the current K-12 public education system. We have an opportunity to redefine what school is for and change how it is designed based on those principles. We can educate on purpose rather than by accident.

I've been searching for examples of school systems who are already embracing this philosophy and I'm coming up short. We seem to be operating, as an industry, as if we simply have to wait out this crisis to return to "normal". I'm not sure this will even be possible or if it should be.

I've been attracted to articles that champion leading "from the bottom up", meaning teachers are given a high degree of autonomy to decide what is best for their students. I hate the phrase "bottom up" because the "bottom" here represents the most important, influential and vital people in the system, but I like the sentiment. I want to hear more from classroom teachers who are bucking the trend, parents who are adapting what they are being asked to do, students who are demanding a better way. Those are the people I most want to help.

Here's the thing: as a nation, we are obsessed with "readiness" and "competence" and "grade-level". I'm not sure those things have much meaning right now. At the very least, it's time to start questioning the success criteria we have accepted for more than a century and think about what it really means to receive a high-quality education. What is school for? What is most important to know, understand and be able to do? Teachers, parents and students have largely been told what is most important and while we may complain and question particular standards and expectations here and there, we also accept that what students are expected to learn at each grade level is what they should learn. If teachers, parents and students had more control of what, when, where, why and how they learn, how might learning look different? 

Pre COVID-19, school systems were set up to train teachers as technicians. They received instructions and were told how to implement curriculum with various levels of support. We used words like "fidelity", "research-based" and "best practice" to mask the truth: pedagogical materials are largely created to standardize instruction for the least capable among us. 

I don't mean to say there are "good" and "bad" teachers. Most of us are shades of both, depending on the subject matter, the culture of our schools, the stability of our personal lives, our prior training, our level of comfort with technology, etc. Sometimes we need scripted materials to get started when we are uncomfortable or just starting out with a new program or curriculum. Because we occasionally need support, we often sacrifice our autonomy and agency in one area at the expense of others where we are expert. In those areas, we feel stifled and disrespected and grumble about lack of control, but we aren't always sure where to direct those concerns and we wonder if "they" will even listen.

Pre COVID-19, we could be pretty certain that the context in most schools was relatively similar. A second grade classroom in Idaho and Massachusetts will likely both cover subtraction with regrouping at some point and a twelfth grader will almost certainly take a civics course. The standards were set based on the content for each course and the curriculum was delivered similarly, in groups of 15-30, in a room with 4 walls and a bell, with a board or computers and a single teacher.

Now, everything is different. Kids in second grade may be babysitting preschool aged siblings. High schoolers may be essential employees at the local grocery store. Some may have parents who print schedules from Pinterest, while others are staying up until all hours playing video games. We are questioning many things about school: what matters to learn, what schools are actually for, what is essential to know, who does the teaching, what methods are most appropriate when students and teachers are not physically together.

So here's my question: 

What if teachers demanded to be treated like artists? 

After working with their students for weeks and months prior to the stay at home order, our teachers know their students. They are tuned in to the unique situations in each home and know how very different things are. Even if they've memorized the standards and can perfectly deliver Lesson 39 from the teacher edition, the conditions have changed and technical manuals no longer match the context. We cannot simply follow the directions and we've trained a generation of teachers to expect to be told exactly what to do and to fear doing it wrong.

Some people are ready. They are craving the chance to do amazing things. They are not afraid of failing, but they are afraid of getting in trouble if they don't comply. I'm waiting for the "We trust you. You are professionals. You've got this. Let us know if you need help." message. That is what I want to hear. 

I'm not holding my breath waiting for it, though. I think teachers need to demand it. I don't mean we should picket on the streets or zoom bomb our school board meetings. I think instead we quietly start to reclaim the right to determine what we teach, how we teach it, why and when. I think we start to rethink what is most important and how we deploy our instruction. I think we reach out to families and find out where leeway is needed in specific situations. I think we should question whether it really does matter if kids write 5 paragraph essays each week or spend 20 minutes per day on a prescribed software program for the sake of "fidelity" or regardless of what the district plans say.

What I'm proposing is simple. What if teachers designed these final weeks of school for joy and exploration? What if they introduced their students to something they are curious about and conducted group research that includes physical observation, virtual experiences, discussion, interviews with family members, whatever resources are available? What if each student is also treated as an artist, allowed to express their understanding in whatever medium they choose? 

I don't pretend to know what this looks like yet, but I do think the WC Fields quote at the top of this post applies: we teach people how to treat us. What are going to ask for now, as a profession, that we never dared to before? How can we prove now what we are capable of in a way that cannot be taken back? What if we worry less about who is looking over our shoulder and what the "rules" are, and more about why we decided to teach in the first place? What if we throw out the playbook and redefine what learning is, what schooling is? What if we reclaim our role as artists? Imagine what we could create....

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Teaching as an Artist

Recently my friend Meghan asked the eminently important question, “What if teachers demanded to be treated like artists?”  From the moment I read it, I was intrigued because it was Meghan herself who labeled me as just such a teacher during a conversation one time over tea.  In all honesty, her comment kind of took me aback because I never really understood how to define myself in the educational realm.  I certainly would never have labeled myself a technician.  As I’ve alluded to before, the entirety of my formal training in teaching consisted of one 16-week Career Switcher course (that I totally lied my way into by having my boss at the sandwich shop sign off that I was a full-time employee, part of the requirements for entry into the program) and four continuing education credits for my Gifted Education endorsement from UVA.  However, absent the ability to make fancy worksheets, to wow people with jargon, or to make to-the-minute lesson plans, I found that I did possess a particular skill set that included building connections, encouraging deeper inquiry, and fostering honesty and authenticity. I had no idea that this is what artistry looks like in the educational system, but I was grateful for the label because it was one I had demanded for years from the wider world.  So, as someone who self-identifies as an artist and who tends to gravitate towards others of the same ilk, I would like to try to answer Meghan’s main question in the best way that I know how, through what I think are some very simple truths.  Some of the things I have to say may sound harsh; some will sound hopeful; it is my desire that maybe they bring about change.

Anyone can claim the mantle of artist. 

For the longest time I did not think that I was worthy of calling myself an artist.  Even though I have played the drums for 25 years, written songs, and recorded and toured with as many as 6 different bands, I didn’t consider myself to be an “artist” because I never made it to the level of some of my peers where I was sustaining myself completely through my art. (I like to tell people that I have made tens of dollars playing music.)  Add that to the fact that the music I played wasn’t exactly mainstream, and you can see why I had plenty of moments over the years where I asked myself if I was actually making art or just failing at making noise.  From those moments of reflection, I had what has been the most important revelation of my life to date, which is that anyone who has the courage to try and to make art gets to call him or herself an artist.  Art is about taking that which is indescribable and translating it to the wider world.  It is about taking the complexity and depth of human emotion and connection and putting it into a form that we all can appreciate and enjoy and ponder.  The ability to do that is not exclusive to one person or group of people.  It is not an exclusively innate quality, and it doesn’t even require any special prerequisites.  What art does require is a spirit that is humble and unafraid, humble enough to be able to show yourself with all of your flaws and scars, because that is what creates connection, and unafraid to dream big and possibly to fail, because that is what fosters authenticity.  When you start to do this in the classroom, it can feel intimidating because it requires you to stop viewing the lesson plan as sacrosanct, to drop the façade of authority a little bit, and to blur the line between you the teacher and you the human being.  However, once you claim the mantle, you will have stepped into a whole new world where teaching ends and where educating begins.

Artistry is wildly underappreciated.

Anyone who has ever made art and become even decently competent at it will tell you that I may even be understating this a bit.  We simply do not appreciate artistry.  Every artist I know has one or multiple stories about being asked to do their art for free in exchange for “exposure” to some mythical wider audience, or having their art stolen from them for a commercial or YouTube video, or having people with means continually ask them for free admission to $10 gigs.  The underlying theme is always the same; we want artists to create art; we want to enjoy that art, we even want the knock on effect of being associated with that art,  but when it comes time to compensate them for the joy that they bring to our lives with that art, we’d rather spend our money at Starbucks or on the golf course or something.  Some artists hope that the lack of money can be counterbalanced with respect, but that can be sorely lacking, as well.  In my experience, this is much the same in the educational system.  The educational system loves to celebrate artistry in the abstract.  It looks great in promotional videos, community events, and on Twitter because it allows the system to appear forward thinking and even to dream a bit about all of the great things to which public education could aspire.  But, when the rubber meets the road, education systems have shown themselves to be highly reticent to truly support artistry and innovation.  That is the world into which you are walking in deciding to claim your mantle as artist in the classroom.  There is no real money in it, either in terms of salary or project support.  In public education, higher salaries are reserved solely for people who go into administration (who are almost always technicians), and funding is generally earmarked for those things that are “tried and true,” especially in systems that are already on the ropes financially.  You won’t get awards because the people who understand the subtle beauty of your artistry are usually not the same people that they put on selection committees.  You won’t even necessarily get respect or kudos because oftentimes your mere presence and willingness to view and do things differently is threatening to the technicians.  Some of your colleagues won’t understand you; some people in your administration won’t even understand you, but your students will understand you, and that’s all that matters.

As an artist, you are the future.

As many forward-thinking people have said, there just doesn’t seem to be good logic behind the thought that public education as we know it can go back to all of its old methods in the wake of what COVID-19 has shown us.  However, the fear that I and many others have is that the old methods will win because they feel safe, and they feel tested.  But a return to the old just doesn’t feel possible anymore.  All of the stakeholders involved have seen that so many of the things we were told are non-negotiable about public education, like grades, buildings, SOL tests, schedules, and standards, have all proven highly negotiable when push comes to shove.  So, what exactly does that mean when all of those things come back?  To me it means that we are looking at having to put the proverbial genie back into the bottle and facing some extremely hard questions as to how exactly he fits.  When those questions inevitably become hard to answer is when they will turn to the artists for help in answering them.  The artists are the ones who show the path forward, a path that values discovery and inquiry over repetition and memorization.  The artists are the ones who value authenticity and choice as opposed to conformity.  The artists are the ones who are committed to finding inspiration and passion, and we will need both in spades in the days ahead.  They will come to you looking for these things, and in that moment, it will be up to you to point the compass due north.

So, what happens when teachers demand to be treated as artists?  It’s really quite simple.  When you demand to be treated as an artist, you will split opinion.  Those who truly get it will get you, and you will be invaluable to them.  Those who don’t get it will undervalue you, even openly disrespect you.  But, and this is the most important, those who are truly the most in need will get the things that they need to thrive, something that only you can give them.  That is a reward that cannot be taken away. 

Jared Fritzinger  is a Civics and Economics teacher at Old Donation School in Virginia Beach, VA. He has been teaching for about 9 years. Before teaching he delivered sandwiches and worked in a mail room while he toured as a drummer in various punk rock bands.  He also got a Masters Degree in History with a minor in Political Science from Old Dominion University somewhere in there.


He received the 2019 Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators for his work with the EcoBus project and developing a school-wide capstone course for 8th graders. After partying all night the night before at an Iron Maiden concert, he got to meet the head of the EPA.  Maiden was cooler. He is married to Becky, who is a way better teacher than he is, and they have a 2.5 year old daughter named Shirley who acts just like Jared. He is starting a blog/podcast called Education in the Wild where he explores and celebrates non-traditional educational pathways and the people who follow them. Find out more at edinthewild.com


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